Monday, November 29, 2010

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Confession: on negotiating my ecclesial identity

This past week, Amy and I became new members (or as they would rightly prefer to say, new disciples) at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church—no doubt to the chagrin of many friends, colleagues, and professors. This is the first time either of us have ever belonged to a mainline denomination, having spent our lives primarily in non-denominational evangelical churches. And I always assumed, being at Princeton Seminary, that we would end up as Presbyterian, not Lutheran. But we feel really good about this decision. It represents the culmination (for now) of a long transformation in our theological commitments and ecclesial identity. While we still identify ourselves as “evangelical”—taking advantage of the term’s ambiguity, diversity, and multivalence—we also identify with many of the concerns and traditions of the mainline churches.

Because most of my friends and colleagues are of the Reformed persuasion, I want to use the remainder of this post to make explicit where I stand in terms of my Reformational identity. Before I outline in detail where I agree and disagree with Lutheran and Reformed theology, let me begin with a biographical note. I knew next to nothing about Lutheran or Reformed theology prior to coming to Princeton Seminary. I had read Bonhoeffer in college and fell in love then with Christian theology, and I read extensive amounts of Eberhard Jüngel between college and seminary. But I had only the faintest notion of them as “Lutheran” theologians, and I really didn’t know what distinguished them confessionally from someone like Karl Barth.

All that’s to say, I was a theological and ecclesial neophyte when I came to seminary. I approached these and other figures with no confessional agenda, no preconceived notion of what was “right” or “wrong” regarding the Reformation. I have always been and always will be a “free church” theologian, in the sense that I serve no particular confession or denomination, but rather serve Jesus Christ alone. I do not engage in theological work in order to bolster or defend a particular ecclesial identity. I am always ready to rebel against a tradition, institution, or theologian when I have reason to go in a different direction, but I am equally ready to make alliances in the most unusual and unexpected places (e.g., Barthian-liberationist or Anglican-Anabaptist).

Those trained to see Christian identity as the rigorous and faithful extension of a secure tradition will no doubt see this as a kind of radical voluntarism, the kind born of a Western spirit of individualism that leads precisely to today’s self-centered, seeker-sensitive, church-hopping culture. In response, I would reject both the notion of a “secure tradition” that only needs to be extended (rather than reinterpreted and renegotiated anew every day) and the notion of a traditionless voluntarism that refuses all norms apart from the sovereign preference of the individual will. Instead, I seek to embody a missionary openness to the claim of the moment, to the word of the gospel that addresses me here and now with God’s sending command. Our identity is never a secure possession, never a settled fact; ecclesial identity has to be discovered ever anew as we encounter the word of God today.

With this preface, let me now identify where I stand in the debate between Lutheran and Reformed theology. I will proceed as follows: (a) agreement with the Lutheran tradition over against the Reformed, (b) agreement with the Reformed over against the Lutheran, and (c) disagreement with both in favor of other ecclesial options.

A. Lutheran against the Reformed
  1. The first point to make is simply that I identify with Lutheran theologians far more than with Reformed. To be honest, apart from Barth, Schleiermacher, Calvin (and Calvin only read in light of Barth), and the Heidelberg Catechism, I would have virtually no interest in the Reformed tradition. While I have certainly learned much from Reformed theologians (though almost exclusively from “Barthians”), I have been under the tutelage of Lutheran theologians. These include Eberhard Jüngel, Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gerhard Ebeling, G.W.F. Hegel, Søren Kierkegaard, and Robert Jenson. The fact is that I read Barth in the light of what I have gained from these Lutheran thinkers, particularly Jüngel and Bultmann, though of course the influence is mutual.
  2. Of the two central theological points of agreement with Lutheran theology, the first to note is the emphasis on the concrete and present-tense over against the abstract and past-tense. Put differently, I agree with the Lutheran emphasis on the present proclamation of the word as the decisive event over against the Reformed emphasis on God’s abstract, pre-temporal predestination (Barth, I want to say, represents a complicated via media that is neither Reformed nor Lutheran).
  3. The second central theological point concerns christology. Historically, of course, this is what separated the Lutherans and the Reformed. Here my views are quite complicated, since I both agree and disagree with both Lutheran and Reformed views on Jesus Christ. In terms of agreement, I side with Lutheran theology in emphasizing the radical unity of divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ. That is, I see myself as standing in the so-called Alexandrian tradition of Athanasius and Cyril, though perhaps more accurately in the neo-Chalcedonian tradition of Maximus the Confessor. Of course, I submit this tradition to a thoroughly historical-critical revision in the wake of Schleiermacher, Strauss, Troeltsch, and Bultmann. So I would prefer to speak of a non-competitive “paradoxical identity” of divinity and humanity in Christ, rather than speak in terms of a logos-sarx relation as favored in the ancient church. And I would start “from below” with the concrete human person, Jesus, rather than “from above,” with the Logos, as did the Alexandrian tradition. It is the human Jesus who is identical with and constitutive of God, not a metaphysical Logos who then assumes human flesh. But I nevertheless rigorously reject the quasi-Nestorian christology manifest in the Reformed tradition, which is so concerned about protecting the sovereignty and majesty of God that it all-too-often forgets that Jesus redefines divine majesty in the form of a humble servant who suffers and dies. For this reason, I cannot accept the concepts of logos asarkos and extra Calvinisticum without serious reinterpretation.
  4. Less important, but no less true, is my rejection of the Reformed opposition to art and iconography within the church. On this point I stand with the Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, and Anglicans, in addition to the Lutherans. Theologically, of course, this is derivative of the christological point made above in #3.
  5. Liturgically and sacramentally, I firmly believe that the eucharist should be celebrated as often as the community gathers. For this reason, the Reformed practice of at least once every quarter (or as often as monthly) simply does not suffice.
B. Reformed against the Lutheran
  1. Returning to the christological debate, I agree with the Reformed against the Lutheran doctrine of ubiquity—both the Swabian doctrine of absolute ubiquity and the Martin Chemnitz’s relative ubiquity or multivolipraesentia. This means I also reject the Lutheran use of the genus maiestaticum (genus of majesty), which involves a communication of attributes from the divine to the human nature as part of the perichoretic union of the natures. Against this, I hold to a kind of genus tapeinoticum (genus of humility) in which human attributes are communicated to the divine. The point is: I do not accept the Lutheran christology that undergirds its eucharistic theology. (But neither do I accept the Reformed christology that threatens the unity of deity and humanity in Christ. My christological moves are possible within a broadly Lutheran framework, even if I disagree with standard Lutheran orthodoxy.)
  2. Along with my rejection of the Lutheran genus maiestaticum, I also side with the Reformed in terms of eucharistic theology. The Lutherans, holding to the ubiquity of Christ’s body, advocate a kind of consubstantiation, in which Christ’s body is substantially given “in, with, and under” the eucharistic elements. My view would be closer to Calvin on this point, who argues instead that the Holy Spirit makes Jesus Christ present in the elements, but without substantially localizing him on the basis of a doctrine of omnipresence. I prefer the Reformed view primarily because of its pneumatological orientation and its actualistic character: Christ is present in the Spirit and in this concrete moment of word and sacrament. I prefer to ground the eucharistic presence of Christ in the pneumatic epiclesis than in the priestly consecration. Having said that, I would still construe my theology of the Lord’s Supper in modern Lutheran terms as a visible word-event (Wortgeschehen) in which the elements become the tangible signs of God’s kerygmatic presence in the moment of word and faith.
  3. Finally, because of the genus maiestaticum and other tendencies, Lutherans tend to favor notions of deification and mystical union. While there are strands of this in the Reformed as well, by and large I agree with the Reformed in rejecting all notions of divinization. Of course, figures like Jüngel and Bonhoeffer are quite adamant on this point as well, so the problem is not the Lutheran tradition per se but certain contemporary versions of it.
C. Against both Lutheran and Reformed
  1. I stand against both of these traditions in their Constantinian legacy. Both Lutheran and Reformed churches failed to break free from the catastrophic church-state partnership that has characterized the Christian faith since Constantine. While the Reformed have been more successful than the Lutherans in this regard, I actively stand with the Anabaptists in their non-conformist rebellion. This coincides with my views on mission and missiology. A Constantinian church believes that mission takes the form of extending the structure of the church to unreached people groups. A “free church” missiology recognizes that the church has to be freely translated from one culture to another. Mission is translation, not diffusion and expansion. Here I would borrow from Bultmann and Barth, along with contemporary voices in the field of missional theology (e.g., Guder, Flett, Sanneh, and Newbigin).
  2. Along with the rejection of the heresy of Constantinianism, I also reject the tendency and temptation to turn a particular confession, such as Augsburg or Westminster, into a norm of orthodoxy. To be sure, this is a temptation that threatens the Lutheran tradition more than the Reformed (with its stress on the semper reformanda), but it is nevertheless a battle that wages in both churches. I firmly believe that we are faithful to God alone, and to the scriptures that bear witness to God. All creeds and confessions have only a relative authority, and they are entirely provisional in nature.
  3. While I have come to embrace infant baptism as an acceptable rite—rightly understood, of course—I also affirm adult baptism (perhaps even as the norm).
  4. Again with the Anabaptists, and John Howard Yoder in particular, I would also insist that the Christian church must be confessionally nonviolent. Participation in the military, for example, is a violation of one’s commitment to Jesus Christ.
  5. Finally, as a “free church” theologian, I have doubts about all denominations, not only because I have an issue with static institutional identities that are by nature conservative and resistant to change, but also because I do not think the future of the church is going to be found in religious brick-and-mortar congregations that have visible, public properties with salaried staff. If there is a future for Christianity, it will be located in the marginalized homes and communities that serve as nodes in a global matrix of concrete social action and worldly solidarity.
These are not all of the factors involved. This list could easily be twice as long. But I hope this gives at least a glimpse into what I think it means to be a “free church” Reformational Christian. While my family now belongs to a Lutheran church, I do not think this makes us “Lutheran,” as if our faith now receives an indelible label. Like many in my generation, I disdain attempts to locate my faith within predefined categories. But I also do not believe that I am “cherry-picking” my allegiances. Instead, as with theology, I find myself compelled by my confession of Christ’s lordship to transgress boundaries and erect new ones in pursuit of a more faithful Christian self-understanding. Theology, as Barth said, must always begin again at the beginning. Perhaps the same is true in our confessional and ecclesial identity.